Finance India Scandals
PM Modi’s 'own goal' on Adani and Ambani
May 16, 2024
Indian PM Modi launches his bizarre tirade against Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, on 8 May 2024, Telengana.

In the midst of India’s general election, observers have been flummoxed by a recent attack by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on key opposition figure Rahul Gandhi. Modi accused Gandhi of accepting vanloads of cash from India’s two richest men, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, supposedly in return for going easy on them. No evidence for this bizarre slur was proffered. The claims were perplexing because Gandhi has been far from silent regarding the alleged nexus between Modi, Adani and Ambani. It is Narendra Modi himself who is seen by many commentators, not just Gandhi, as having favoured the Adani and Ambani corporate conglomerates with friendly government policies.

Half-way through the heat and dust of India’s general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprung a surprise on the country, including his most ardent supporters. He suggested during a public speech on 8 May 2024 in Karimnagar, Telangana, in southern India, that the country’s two richest men Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani were sending carloads of cash to the largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress.

Opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, pledges to institute a parliamentary probe into the alleged malpractices of the Adani Group, following publication of the explosive Hindenburg Report in January 2023.

The Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, retaliated by asking Modi why his government’s law-enforcing agencies were not acting against the two oligarchs. In recent years, Gandhi has been relentlessly attacking Modi, who heads the right-wing Hindu nationalist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi, for shaping policies and bending rules to favour the corporate conglomerates led by Adani and Ambani, both of whom are from Gujarat, Modi’s home state. Modi is attempting to win a third consecutive term as prime minister,

Narendra Modi to Rahul Gandhi: why have you stopped abusing Adani-Ambani?

Here is a translation from Hindi to English of what the Prime Minister said 25 minutes into his speech in Karimnagar:

‘You may have noticed, for the last five years, the shehzada (or prince) of the Congress (meaning Rahul Gandhi) has been harping on the same string every morning as soon as he gets up. Ever since the Rafale (aircraft) case (in which it was alleged that Modi had favoured a French firm) was grounded, he started harping on it. For five years, he has been harping on it. Five industrialists, five industrialists, five industrialists…

PM Modi's post on social media of his rally speech at which he made his strange allegation against Opposition campaigner, Rahul Gandhi. Image X

‘Then slowly, he started saying Ambani-Adani, Ambani-Adani, Ambani-Adani, for five years. But ever since the elections were declared, he stopped abusing Ambani-Adani. Today, from Telangana, I want to ask him… the shehzada should announce how much money (maal) he has taken from Ambani-Adani. How many sacks of black money have gone to him? Have they sent tempos (vans) filled with notes to Congress? What deal have they struck? You have stopped abusing Ambani-Adani overnight. There must be something fishy. For five years, he abused Ambani-Adani, and overnight the abuses stopped! That means you have received looted amounts (chori ka maal) filled in trucks. You have to answer the nation.’

PM Modi at Ahmedabad airport - sold to the Adani Group despite the Group then having had no experience running airports.

A part of the statement was also highlighted on Prime Minister Modi’s official website.

On 9 May, the Congress dared the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take the ‘logical step’ of ordering a thorough investigation against Adani and Ambani, whom Modi described as ‘hoarders of black money’. Addressing a press conference in New Delhi, Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said that Modi mustered courage to ‘expose the corruption of Adani and Ambani’ after Rahul Gandhi had highlighted the ‘corporate loot’ that had allegedly been acquired by these two super-rich industrialists.

She taunted the Prime Minister: ‘He said they fill tempos (vans) with bags of cash and distribute them…Modi must now send the Enforcement Directorate, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) and the Income Tax (Department) to investigate how so much black money was amassed. What’s the point in getting scared now and retracing the step? Don’t be afraid now, unleash your agencies. Let the raids start.’

(Story continues below)

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‘They should not believe in the promised land that the Adani company tempts them with.’

Stunned into silence

Media outlets owned by the groups headed by Ambani and Adani were stunned into silence. Their commentators were flummoxed, and group spokespersons did not react. The BJP and its supporters, normally quick to amplify every statement of Modi, chose not to say anything. Notably the Prime Minister’s second-in-command Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP President JP Nadda remained silent.

Representatives of business associations and industry bodies, too, were quiet, as were Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, the two founders of the corporate conglomerates.

The Parsa Kente Basan East coal mine, which wiped out part of the Hasdeo forests. PM Modi supports Adani's coal mining here; Rahul Gandhi has called for a halt to new mines. Image Abir Dasgupta

Analysts such as Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, described the Prime Minister’s statement as an ‘astonishing self-goal’ while Sushant Singh, lecturer at Yale University in the USA and a consulting editor with Caravan magazine, called it a ‘sign of desperation’. Both were participating in a discussion hosted by The Wire and published on YouTube.   

Modi alleged that the Congress could have received ‘chori ka maal’ or the ‘proceeds of crime’ from Adani and Ambani as part of a deal. He also talked about a quid pro quo, claiming that Gandhi had stopped attacking Adani and Ambani after the announcement of the elections. The Congress quickly pointed that this was incorrect and that Gandhi had referred to Adani and Ambani over a hundred times in his public speeches over the last five weeks.

Contrary to Modi’s claim, Gandhi has not stopped attacking Adani and Ambani

AltNews, a fact-checking website, did a simple key word search with date filter and wrote that Gandhi had criticised the BJP and Modi’s associations with the two magnates several times in his campaign speeches in the recent past. Here are a few examples.

Rahul Gandhi discusses the Hasdeo forests (threatened by Adani's coal mines) with Goldman prize-winner, Alok Shukla, during Gandhi's walk across India in 2022.

On 7 May, delivering a speech at Lohardaga, Jharkhand, in eastern India, Gandhi declared: ‘The BJP says you are forest dwellers (vanvasis) and they would give the entire forest to Adani… 24 hours a day, they keep handing over forest land to Adani… Whatever they do, they do it for the billionaires. They have 22-25 friends like Adani, Ambani. All the work are done for them. Land for them, forest for them, media for them, infrastructure for them, roads for them, bridges for them, petrol for them, everything for them. Earlier, there used to be public sector (organisations) where tribals, Dalits (low castes), backward classes had their reservation (of jobs). Everything is now being privatised… the public sector is your asset… roads, railways are your assets, not Adani’s. Everything is being handed over to them. You tell me, these media-persons who are standing here. Do they talk about you? They will never do that. They are not yours. They work for the billionaires. They work for them. They will show the Ambani (son’s pre-) wedding (celebrations) for 24 hours. But if a tribal dies, if he is killed, if he begs with folded hands, he will not be shown by the media.’

A day earlier, at Khargone, Madhya Pradesh in central India, Gandhi said: ‘…water bodies, forests, land (jal-jangal-zameen), reservation, public sector, everything will vanish. And Hindustan (India) will be ruled by 22-25 people. Who are these people? They are the billionaires of Hindustan. People like Adani, whose eyes are fixed on your land, your forests, your water bodies. They want these to be snatched from you and handed over to them. They are special friends of Narendra Modi ji. Have you heard the name Adani? Have you? The Prime Minister wants to give away your land, forests, water bodies to Adani. Airports, power stations, ports, infrastructure, everything has been given to these 22-25 people by Narendra Modi ji… he has waived off loans amounting to Rs 1,600,000 crore of these 22-25 people.’

On 5 May, at Ratlam, also in Madhya Pradesh, Gandhi alleged: “Brothers and sisters, you must have noticed that the media persons never talk about tribals. Isn’t that right? They will show Ambani’s wedding, Bollywood (film actors) dancing and singing, but (when) there are atrocities on tribals, your children are raped, your land is snatched away, then nothing is ever said about you in the media.’ (The text of the speech can be found here.)

On May 4 in Nagakurnool, Telangana, and again in Delhi, Gandhi mentioned the name of the Adani Group chairman Gautam Adani in his speeches. AltNews pointed out that on each of the five days before 8 May when Modi made his speech alleging ‘sudden silence’ by Gandhi, he had attacked the two billionaire tycoons.

On 30 April, Gandhi shared a video on X (Twitter) where he said: ‘Understand the difference…Have you seen Narendra Modi-ji’s photo with Ambani and Adani? But have you heard the word Ambani or Adani on Narendra Modi’s lips? Have you seen my photo with them? But I utter the words Adani, Ambani. Understand the difference. I am yours, he is theirs.’

The official X handle of Congress shared a video that compiled short clips of Rahul Gandhi’s recent public utterances mentioning the two businessmen. (‘We will keep asking the question: what is Modi's relationship with Adani?’)

The fact-checking website’s queries to Reliance Industries Limited (headed by Mukesh Ambani) and the Adani Group seeking their response to the allegations made by Modi did not elicit a response.

Confusion in corporate sector

Social media platforms in India have been flooded with hundreds of messages, memes and cartoons. A Congress supporter put out a meme captioned: ‘Adani Tempo Service – here black money is transferred from one place to another…’

The May 2014 photograph of Modi using Adani’s plane to fly from Ahmedabad in Gujarat to New Delhi just before he was sworn in as Prime Minister of India has found new life.

Narendra Modi boards an Adani jet on his way to being sworn in as India's newly elected Prime Minister in 2014.

Corporate leaders are unsure how to react. One high-net worth individual, speaking to this journalist on condition of anonymity, said ‘the Prime Minister’s speech has confused us no end’. He added that he ‘was not sure if Modi was distancing himself from Adani and Ambani, whether he was sending a message to other businessmen that he could throw them under the bus if he so wanted, or whether he wanted to state that he knew that corporate captains were covertly funding political parties opposed to his regime.’

He pointed out that Modi had not uttered Adani’s name even once after the Hindenburg Research report was published in January 2023 with the provocative title: ‘Adani Group: How the world’s 3rd richest man is pulling the largest con in corporate history.’ Gandhi’s subsequent references to Adani in a major speech to the Lok Sabha or the lower house of India’s Parliament were controversially removed by the parliament.

The Prime Minister also did not react to a speech made in the legislative assembly by Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, who was recently arrested. In his speech, Kejriwal quoted an unnamed leader of the BJP telling him that Modi was protecting Adani because he was managing the Prime Minister’s money and acting as a ‘front’ for him. ‘The day Adani drowns, Modi will drown,’ claimed Kejriwal, who was granted interim bail and released from prison on 10 May. He and some of his colleagues have been accused of corruption in changing policies on distribution of liquor in the national capital.

In a private conversation with the writer, a corporate observer said 'big business groups usually covertly fund both the incumbents and their opponents albeit by smaller amounts'. He added that Modi’s statement had 'flummoxed the representatives of other business groups who are now wondering if they should have given more to opposition political parties, including the Congress, especially since none other than the Prime Minister himself had seemingly confirmed that the Adani and Ambani groups had given tempo-loads of cash to the Congress'.

This corporate observer wondered if Modi took anyone’s advice before saying what he did. 'He probably spoke off-the-cuff and is now facing the consequences. No one from the BJP or the Adani and the Ambani groups has uttered a word. They have been stunned into silence.'

The story of Modi’s association with India’s two richest men will probably not end here.

The writer is an independent journalist in India.